A prince among students

The staid university of St Andrews is bracing itself for a blast of modernity, with the imminent arrival on campus of Prince William, hotly pursued by the world's media. Brian Viner returns to his alma mater to watch the frenzy unfold ? and offers the royal freshman some helpful inside information
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In the St Andrews University students' union – a squat, modern building of no great architectural merit; you might even call it a monstrous carbuncle – tonight is Red Not Dead night, a hoop-la sponsored by the alcopop Red. It's freshers' week, a time when fledgling undergraduates find their way to the union and get to know the town's pubs, which are almost as abundant as in 1781, when a former fresher, the Bishop of Cloyne's grandson, wrote approvingly of "no fewer than two-and-forty alehouses".

Even more important, it is a time when freshers get to know one another. Yet there is one fresher who, if he is there tonight, will require no introduction, although he will politely introduce himself to his contemporaries. On Monday, HRH Prince William Arthur Philip Louis of Wales – or Will Wales, as he reportedly wishes to be known – begins a four-year degree in art history. He chose St Andrews, as I did 20 years ago, because it is a fine university and a long way from home.

The town's remoteness, paradoxically, is why it is there. In fifth-century Constantinople, a monk called Regulus was warned in a dream that unbelievers were about to desecrate the bones of the apostle Andrew. He was advised to protect the sacred relics by taking them to the "uttermost ends of the earth". When his boat ran aground on the coast of Fife about 15 miles south of Dundee, he understandably reckoned that he'd made it.

Over the past 12 months, overseas newspaper reporters – on the trail of Prince William before the poor lad has even got there himself – have arrived on the Fife coast with much the same sense of achievement that old Regulus must have felt. Reaching St Andrews by road is not like getting to Ulan Bator, but you'd never know it from reading Die Welt or USA Today – whose reporter inaccurately described the A92 to St Andrews as "the only road into town" and "a winding country lane".

Still, it is true that the A92 does rather emphasise the relative isolation of the so-called auld grey toon. I drove along it last week, through Auchtermuchty, known by locals as 'Muchty (try gathering phlegm at the back of your mouth, then propel it forward with your tongue before expelling it with a whoosh, and you will get an idea of the pronunciation), and on through Cupar ("best-kept large town in Fife, eastern region") before the wonderful medieval skyline of St Andrews appeared through the light drizzle.

When I arrived there I found that progress had preceded me along the A92. The Bishop of Cloyne's grandson would not recognise the alehouses. I'm not sure I did. The Britannia Hotel – run two decades ago by a pair of elderly spinsters who would serve students only half-pints of beer, and when you'd had two, that was your lot – has been replaced by a snazzy chrome joint called the West Port. And in Ma Bell's bar, I found that you can buy £10 pitchers of a vodka-based cocktail called Sex on the Beach. In my day, if you had asked the Ma Bell's barman for Sex on the Beach, you would have come round, if you were lucky, in Ninewells Hospital, Dundee.

It was in Ma Bell's that I started chatting to a third-year called Greg. The arrival of Prince William filled him with dread, he said. Because of the accompanying media invasion? Because two British tabloids are said to have bought properties in the town in readiness for four years of Wills-watching? "No, because he and his mates will get first pick of all the hot new totty."

The president of the Students' Association, Dana Green, did not choose to elaborate on Greg's grievance, alas. A self-possessed American woman, who depressingly was not quite a month old when I arrived for freshers' week 1981, Green talked to me of her amazement at the worldwide media interest since Prince William's decision to study at St Andrews. "We've had CNN here, CBS, People magazine, Ladies' Home Journal, The Baltimore Sun, the Concord Monitor – the list is endless," she said, adding that the Germans have been relentlessly curious, more so even than the British, Americans and Japanese.

Their excitement is partly prompted, no doubt, by one intriguing statistic. Apparently, there is a higher level of marriage between St Andrews graduates than between graduates of any other British university. Over the next four years, in other words, Wills is likely to find his future wife. His distant cousin James Ogilvy, son of Princess Alexandra and a university contemporary of mine, is now married to the former Julia Rawlinson, whom he met at St Andrews.

The university's director of admissions, Steve Magee, scoffs at the notion that any young woman would do anything so "whimsical" as apply to a particular university on the off-chance of winning the hand of Britain's future king. That there are a number of would-be Julia Rawlinsons in St Andrews right now, however, preparing to jostle genteelly for the prince's affections, is surely not in doubt. Indeed, it is likely that William's arrival is responsible for a whopping 44 per cent rise in applications, from 6,379 last year to 9,212 this year. And the British Council in Washington has reported a startling number of enquiries about the university's admissions procedure from teenage American girls.

But for the time being, most of those competing for the prince's affections will be "yahs" – the term given to a certain type of mostly English ex-public schoolboy and girl (40 per cent of St Andrews' 6,000 students are English, 40 per cent Scottish and 10 per cent North American), who in my day observed particular rituals. You were not a fully fledged yah if you did not live out of town, wear baggy jumpers and write off your Renault 5 after one Pimm's too many. And most male yahs with any sense of self-respect joined, or tried to join, the Kate Kennedy Club, a 50-strong, shamelessly élitist society named after the niece of the university's founder yet closed to women.

There has been much speculation in the media concerning Prince William and the likelihood of his joining the "KK", as his kinsman Ogilvy did. The KK's protests that it is more than a bunch of Hooray Henrys have been ever so slightly dented by the fact that its current president is, in fact, a gregarious toff called Henry. On the other hand, I can vouch for the fact that it is not exclusively populated by yahs; I, a humble grammar schoolboy from Lancashire, was a member, too.

Far more typical, though, was my friend Philip Crosthwaite-Eyre, heir to a substantial fortune, one of whose many late-night encounters with the Fife constabulary it was my privilege to witness. "Name?" grunted the sergeant, notebook poised. "Crosthwaite-Eyre," said Philip. "Crosthwaite," said the sergeant. "Eyre," said Philip. "Aye, Crosthwaite," said the sergeant. "Eyre," repeated Philip, as it began to dawn on me that the sergeant, not unreasonably, understood "Eyre" to be merely a sound uttered by posh people.

So much for one of the KK's declared aims: to improve town–gown relations. Prince William may find that a more fruitful way of mingling with his future subjects is to play football against them. The university team plays in the Fife league, and William, by all accounts a decent player, might welcome the interesting cultural experience represented by an away game at the aforementioned 'Muchty.

On the other hand, he might not. As I recall, the posher the undergraduate, the harder he was tackled. Anyone called Henry or Piers was wise not to advertise it. Indeed, one university player – Lord Mountgarret's son Piers Butler – was banned by team-mates from saying anything in the course of a match, after his exhortation, "Oh come on, you fools" was vehemently derided by the hard men of Leuchars.

No, Leuchars, 'Muchty and other local clubs such as Milton Violet (nicknamed Mental Violence) are not renowned for their tolerance of outsiders. We also had a Swiss-German in our side, a central defender who was inclined in the heat of competition to rail at his midfield in his native language. It was at 'Muchty that around 100 home supporters, standing along the touchline, responded in perfect unison by giving, and maintaining for several minutes, the Nazi salute.

So William might be wise to stick with his own. But he should draw encouragement from St Andrews' status as a shrine for the world's golfers. As Murdo MacDonald, the chairman of the town's community council, told me: "We in St Andrews do not get excited by the sight of famous people. I've just seen Sean Connery walking down the street, and nobody batted an eyelid." ("Sean Connery, really?" I cried, jerking my head round and rather letting the side down.)

Moreover, Steve Magee pointed out the absurdity of Prince William's arrival generating universal overnight interest in a university nearly 600 years old. I considered his words as I left his office on the corner of the gloriously named Butts Wynd, and as I did so, my eyes fell upon a nearby plaque.

It commemorated the life of a former resident, a graduate from long ago, the "Admirable" James Crichton. Crichton, I read, was "a great personality of his time, learned in philosophy and science, fluent in Greek, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, French, Italian, Spanish and English, expert horseman, swordsman and musician." He was stabbed to death in 1582, aged just 22. Now there was a young man who made the most of his time at St Andrews. I hope that Prince William is permitted the same opportunities (barring the stabbing, of course) and grabs them; and most of all, that he gets to try Sex on the Beach without a tabloid reporter taking notes.